22 October 2023

By-election blues


Things are not looking good for the Tories. In what Keir Starmer described, with some justification, as ‘history in the making’, Labour overturned huge majorities in the Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire by-elections. Despite the best efforts of the CCHQ comms team to blame bad weather and low turnout, there’s no denying that these defeats were severe.

In Mid-Bedfordshire, politician-cum-rapper-cum-broadcaster extraordinaire Nadine Dorries was dethroned by Alistair Strathern, a former Greenpeace zombie. Strathern, having won a majority of 1,192 with a swing of 20.5%, was understandably looking rather pleased with himself when his victory was announced.

It is Tamworth, however, that will have been particularly heartbreaking for the Conservatives. Labour candidate Sarah Edwards succeeded Chris Pincher with a majority of 1,316 and a swing of 23.9%. Not only has Tamworth been a Tory stronghold for over 90 years, but it is also where nemesis of the Corn Laws Sir Robert Peel distributed his ‘Tamworth Manifesto’ – which codified the principles upon which the modern party is based.

Unsurprisingly, the Tory spin machine has been in overdrive trying to put a positive gloss on these results. We have heard much in the last couple of days about how these by-elections were unique and therefore not indicative of the outcome of a national poll. By ‘unique’, they mean of course that the two incumbent MPs have done especially little to endear themselves to their constituents. Dorries’ public tantrums and retreat from her constituency and Pincher’s antics at the Carlton Club were surely particular factors in these elections that won’t be in play whenever a general election is called.

The snag in this theory, though, is that voters everywhere dislike blatant careerists and sex pests. A few bad apples might be tolerable in a party fizzing with ideas, but in current circumstances they just add to a general feeling of decline. So what is more likely is that these defeats represent what the polls have been telling us for months. That the Tories are going to be toast at the next election. After all, if the Tamworth swing was repeated across the country, the Conservatives would be left with just 39 seats.

Although the Conservatives are indisputably in a bad spot, it should not be forgotten how catastrophic a Labour government could be. Although Sir Keir has hummed a nice tune on housing and attempted to trim his party’s lunatic fringe, his uncertain handling of questions about Israel and Gaza this week has exposed a vulnerability on his left flank. Support for Palestine is a totemic issue for many younger Labour voters – but one that recalls Starmer’s support for comrade Corbyn in the minds of others.

As William Atkinson reminded CapX readers this week, previous Prime Ministers have found themselves in similar binds and managed to salvage their political legacies. But if Rishi Sunak does not step up and start making the tough, long-term decisions that we need, then both his legacy and the Conservatives’ electoral fate are as good as sealed.

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Joseph Dinnage is Deputy Editor of CapX